Decolonization requires dialogue, expertise and support - Heidelberg Statement

On the occasion of the Annual Conference 2019 of the Directors of the Ethnological Museums in German-speaking Countries in Heidelberg, the following statement was adopted:

Decolonisation requires dialogue, expertise and support - Heidelberg Statement

In the German-speaking world, more than twenty public ethnological and world cultural museums, university museums and collections, as well as ethnological departments in multidisciplinary museums, preserve a significant number of collections of cultural artefacts, photographs, film and sound documents, and written archives. We preserve these collections in a fiduciary duty of care. Through the objects, relationships between people were established which were and still are important for those who once produced them, for their descendants and for all societies in general. These relationships are - similar to diaspora connections - in the foreground of our attention.

We expressly welcome the great current interest of civil society in our houses, in our work, and in questions and problems, including the colonial history of the collections. We also appreciate the concern as to whether the preservation of sensitive collections, such as mortal remains, grave goods, sacred objects, or, if applicable, central cultural heritage is legitimate. The new public commitment points to a social development that goes hand in hand with the increasing awareness of the knowledge preserved in museums and of the importance of the collections for the societies of origin and with which society is facing up to the ethical responsibility in dealing with the objects.

It goes without saying that objects that have entered museums as a result of injustice at the moment of production or collection should be returned - if this is desired by representatives of the copyright societies. It should also be possible to negotiate restitution in cases where objects are of great value to the societies of origin. On the whole, however, museums preserve cultural heritage from highly differentiated acquisition and collection circumstances and thus embody much more than colonial heritage. It is therefore also understandable that the relationships entered into when objects were taken over into the collections commit them to far more than just the return of objects.

All world cultural and ethnological museums and collections see it as their task to ensure the greatest possible degree of transparency in dealing with the history and content of the collections, with cooperative provenance research as the general standard. Important questions continue to arise: What knowledge do we preserve? For whom is this knowledge of what relevance today? Which interpretations urgently need to be reconsidered, what has been overlooked and misunderstood so far? Who were the originators and what rights arise from their authorship to this day? Who are the owners? What forms of relationships, of sharing knowledge and collections, what forms of restitution are necessary, possible, desired? How can dialogues, cooperation and negotiation processes be designed in which the knowledge of all participants is equally incorporated and used? What new knowledge linked to the collections can be created?

All signatories feel committed to the following points:

  • to ensure that all those who, by virtue of their history and cultural practices, are associated with the collections learn, as far as possible, about the repositories of collections that concern them;
  • to share, wherever possible, the preserved knowledge with the authors and their descendants, as this is the only way to create the conditions for mutual trust;
  • to make ongoing research on our collections public.
  • The World Cultural and Ethnological Museums and Collections fulfil the important educational and cultural task of researching and imparting knowledge about objects as well as about cultural, intellectual and art histories beyond Eurocentric concepts of the world. In doing so, we openly and willingly engage with different points of view, cultural contradictions and conflicts about objects and their preservation. Together with the societies of origin, we search for solutions as to how these conflicts can be met ethically, equally and humanely.

Ultimately, the question will always be at the centre of attention as to what kind of common future the international community, with its wealth of testimonies of pluricentric, alternative, socio-technical world designs, can agree on, especially in the period of transition from the analogue to the digital age. To this end, we propose that we encourage the respectful handling of material and immaterial knowledge preserved in the collections.